Many gospel teachers have explained Jacob’s allegory of the tame and wild olive trees (see Jacob 5) as it applies to the history of the house of Israel. A whole book has been written (see Stephen D. Ricks & John Welch, The Allegory of the Olive Tree, Deseret Book, 1994). Articles abound that trace the movements of the tribes, the Book of Mormon peoples, the grafting in of the Gentiles, and the gathering of Israel in the last days. I’m not going to repeat their work, although much of it is very helpful.
Instead, let’s liken the allegory of the olive trees to ourselves. We don’t do that very often. As one scholar says, “Unfortunately, discussion of this allegory is often so preoccupied with the world-historical interpretations of Zenos’ allegory that we miss the central point Jacob likely had in mind: that God loves and looks after the house of Israel, no matter where its branches or blood are scattered. The allegory is more than a complex puzzle whose solution unlocks world history. The allegory dramatizes God’s steadfast love” (John S. Tanner, “Literary Reflections on Jacob and His Descendants,” in The Book of Mormon: Jacob Through Words of Mormon, ed. Monte S. Nyman, Charles D. Tate, Jr., BYU Religious Studies Center, 1990).
So, what does this allegory have to do with us as individuals? How do we fit into this story of God’s love? What part do we play in gathering Israel? After all, our prophet teaches that gathering Israel is “the greatest challenge, the greatest cause, and the greatest work on earth” (“A Call to Enlist and Gather Israel,” New Era, March 2019).
First, how are we like the tame and wild olive trees? In a blessing, the Prophet Joseph Smith promised his father, Joseph Sr., that “when his head is fully ripe, he shall behold himself as an olive tree whose branches are bowed down with much fruit. He shall also possess a mansion on high” (“Journal, 1832–1834,” p. 35, The Joseph Smith Papers). Like the Prophet’s father, if we are faithful, we ourselves will be like “olive trees” with branches bowed down with fruit. The fruit comes in the form of eternal families and “peace in this world and eternal life in the world to come” (D&C 59:23).
Liken yourself to the olive tree. What should you do to produce good fruit rather than evil fruit?
Remember that your Heavenly Father is Lord of the vineyard and the Son is His Servant. It is their “work and glory” to bring to pass your eternal life. If you’re wise, you’ll submit to the “cultivation” that the Lord has in store for you. This is a key requirement. What does the Lord do to cultivate you, and how should you submit to that cultivation?
“Wherefore, dig about them, and prune them, and dung them,” the Lord says in reference to cultivating the olive trees (5:64). A gardener digs the earth around the plant in order to soften it so the plant may take root and draw nutrients from the soil. In the same way, the Lord prepares the ground for you. He gives you just the right conditions so that you might develop strong roots and grow in the gospel. Those conditions might seem less than optimal. The Lord of the vineyard plants some of us in “poor spots.” Why?
Even the servant wonders why. “How camest thou hither to plant this tree? . . For behold, it was the poorest spot in all the land.”
But the Lord says, “Counsel me not; I knew that it was a poor spot of ground; wherefore . . . I have nourished it this long time, and thou beholdest that it hath brought forth much fruit” (5:21-22). The Lord knows where we will grow best.
I have a friend who is the child of a rape. He was physically abused by his stepfather. He grew up poor and was surrounded by criminal activity as a teenager. You couldn’t imagine poorer conditions for raising a boy. But the Lord was working in his life. Over the years he came to know of the gospel, a kind foster family brought him into the church, he became a powerful missionary, and today he rejoices in a fine gospel-centered family of his own. By tracing his life story, you can see how the Lord was preparing the ground for this brother to become a fruitful priesthood holder.
If we are wise servants, we learn not to counsel the Lord of the vineyard. He knows what He is doing. We might be planted in rich soil or poor soil. The circumstances of our lives are chosen for us by a loving Father. Regardless of those circumstances, He knows exactly where you are, and you can count on Him to “nourish you a long time” until you bring forth good fruit under His care.
The Lord also “prunes” the tree. Orchardists can tell you why pruning is necessary. Pruning encourages strong growth and healthy fruit. To prune a tree, they cut away dead, weak, and damaged limbs. Sometimes they even remove good limbs that hinder the growth of better limbs. By pruning, the Lord of the vineyard ensures that the tree uses its energy to produce the best possible fruit instead of growing useless limbs and developing diseases from dead wood.
Obviously, this pruning can be compared to repentance. Spiritual disease and death result from sin, which must be “pruned” from our lives if we are to produce good fruit. Do you have weakness that needs strengthening? Do you have spiritual damage that needs healing? Do you need to remove sinful “dead works” from your life? Go to the Lord. Submit to His pruning, and He will strengthen, heal, and forgive you.
Pruning also means removing even good branches because they encumber better branches. The best branches need light, air, and energy, so we trim away good branches that smother the best ones. President Dallin H. Oaks says, “We have to forego some good things in order to choose others that are better or best because they develop faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and strengthen our families” (“Good, Better, Best,” General Conference, October 2007).
The olive tree also needs nourishment. The right balance of food is essential to healthy growth. Too much of one kind of fertilizer might produce rapid growth but a thin root unable to sustain the plant. Too much of another kind might burn the roots, and another might yellow the leaves and sicken the plant. Spiritual nourishment is like that: a consistent, balanced diet of scripture study and attention to the teachings of latter-day prophets produces healthy spiritual growth.
We all need to be watching for signs of spiritual decline in ourselves, like the tame olive tree that “began to decay.” The Lord is aware of our state of spiritual health, and if we let Him, He can heal decay: “He saw that his olive tree began to decay; and he said: I will prune it, and dig about it, and nourish it, that perhaps it may shoot forth young and tender branches, and it perish not” (5:4). The same pattern—pruning, digging, and nourishing—represents the divine work of salvation.
Some get discouraged by spiritual “decay” in themselves, but the Lord is ready to help. We might be asking, as the prophet Ezekiel put it, “If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how should we then live?” In other words, if we are decaying in sin, what hope do we have of eternal life? (The phrase “pine away” in Hebrew is maqaq, which literally means “decay,” and is possibly the word Jacob uses in the Book of Mormon.) But the Lord says to us in our discouragements, “As I live, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:10-11).
There is no need to give up and die spiritually. The Lord will “dig, prune, and nourish.” He will soften the ground for us, prune away the weakness and the hurt, and feed our souls—that is His work. Then we will put forth the “young and tender branches” that represent new hope and life in ourselves, and we will “perish not.” But we must submit to His working on us or we will bring forth “bitter fruit.”
The biggest spiritual risk to us, according to the allegory, is pride. The Lord of the vineyard weeps when he finds that the wild fruit has overcome the trees and wonders what has corrupted the vineyard. The servant says, “Is it not the loftiness of thy vineyard—have not the branches thereof overcome the roots which are good?” (5:41, 48)
In scripture, lofty trees are common symbols of pride and haughtiness. Jacob would have been familiar with this symbol from Isaiah: “The day of the Lord of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low: and upon all the cedars of Lebanon, that are high and lifted up. . . . The Lord of hosts shall lop the bough with terror: and the high ones of stature shall be hewn down, and the haughty shall be humbled” (Isaiah 2:12-13).
Orchardists know all about pruning “water sprouts” that rise from the trunk of a fruit tree. These thin, arrow-like growths serve no useful purpose and must be removed so that the tree can give its best energy to forming fruit. Otherwise, the tree becomes too “lofty” with wood that absorbs energy from the root and returns nothing to the tree. Like the water sprouts that reach toward the sky but weaken the tree, pride saps away our humility.
Arrogance, vanity, self-importance, and conceit produce bitter fruit in our lives. The haughty anti-Christ Sherem is a classic example of this: He denies the Christ, he doesn’t need a savior, he is completely self-sufficient, a perfect keeper of the Law of Moses—but he soon finds out that he is nothing after all (see Jacob 7:1-20).
We have no reason for pride. Paul says, “If thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee.” If we sing our own praises, we’ve forgotten that we are just branches on the tree of which Christ is the root. Without Him, we die. So, as Paul goes on, “[Stand] by faith. Be not highminded, but fear” (Rom. 11:18-20).
Pride is a serious danger to our souls, but if we will go the Lord, He will “clear away the bad according as the good shall grow, that the root and the top may be equal in strength, until the good shall overcome the bad, and the bad be hewn down and cast into the fire” (5:66). If we keep trying to overcome the bad—a process that takes time—the Lord will strengthen our gospel roots.
Intriguingly, the work described in the allegory of the olive trees is performed primarily by the Lord of the vineyard and His servants. This is true of our lives as well. We often underestimate the power of the Lord to cultivate, prune, and nourish our souls. Too many of us Latter-day Saints think we must do all that work ourselves, but that’s not so. We cannot become the productive bearers of eternal fruit that we want to be without the Lord’s active help.
Obviously, to a certain extent, the trees are passive receivers of the blessings of the Lord of the vineyard. So are we. The blessings of the Atonement flow to us not because we deserve them, but because the Lord loves us. We hear again and again that He is “grieved” when we produce “wild fruit,” but He never gives up on us. Never. Likewise, we must never give up on ourselves. Through many cycles of success and disappointment, the Savior persists in the pattern of cultivating, grafting, pruning, and nourishing until we produce consistently good fruit. That is His work: Our task is to be humble and patient enough to let Him work with us.
We have another important task as well, and it’s a great privilege: To help the Lord of the vineyard with His work: “The Lord of the vineyard sent his servant; and the servant went . . . and brought other servants; and they were few. And the Lord of the vineyard said unto them: Go to, and labor in the vineyard. . . . And if ye labor with your might with me ye shall have joy in the fruit which I shall lay up” (5:70-71). Note that the Lord “labors” alongside us in the grand effort to gather Israel.
President Nelson invites us to make this work our life’s mission. Can there be a more noble and great mission than this? As Sister Wendy Nelson says, “What we choose to do is actually part of our testing. The choice is yours and mine. Will we choose to do whatever it takes to fulfill the wonderful missions for which we were sent to earth?” (“A Call to Enlist and Gather Israel,” New Era, March 2019)